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May 16, 2017 – Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is Co-Director, US Program

I am no fan of recently fired FBI Director James Comey. As part of a team documenting human rights abuses in the US, I’ve seen too many examples in recent years of overreach and lack of transparency by the agency, and aggressive pursuit of greater FBI powers by Comey himself, to feel otherwise. Yet in the aftermath of his firing by a president who has shown a clear aversion to the normal checks and balances of democratic governance, the risks of an abusive and politically compromised FBI are suddenly much greater.

Every society needs effective, intelligent law enforcement to conduct criminal investigations, help bring offenders to account, and prevent abuses of power. At its best, the FBI does just that: It investigates complex cases involving violence or corruption and provides evidence for prosecutions that respect due process and the rule of law.

But it works only because it’s independent of those in power. Without that independence, it couldn’t be trusted to fairly and thoroughly hold the powerful to account, or to conduct unbiased investigations of others. Without independence, it also risks becoming a tool of those in power, to persecute opponents or disfavored groups.

Trump’s firing of Comey risks that independence. As someone who is familiar with the ways the FBI can abuse its power, I’m keenly aware of the need for checks on that power. The last thing that the FBI needs is someone in charge who answers to the president.

The FBI has made huge mistakes in the past. Comey shares part of that blame.

The FBI has a history of being used for political ends. Under its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was a deeply politicized agency. Between 1956 and 1971 it regularly engaged in illegal operations, known collectively as Cointelpro, aimed at carrying out surveillance on, smearing, and discrediting anti-war groups and civil rights activists. The agency’s targets included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the agency had under extensive surveillance, casting him as a “threat.” The FBI even sent him letters urging him to commit suicide.